Uncategorized

Poetry-ize your house for the summer

2362309289_0c75921212

Behold my triumph in a stealth supplemental classical education!  My nine-year-old son, the one affectionately known as “Rat Boy,” came up to me and said, “I really liked that thing you put up, the one about the cows and everything.”  He meant the great G. M. Hopkins poem “Pied Beauty,” which I had printed out, matted on construction paper, and tacked over his gerbil’s tank without comment.

He and his siblings certainly did not want to memorize poems when we were homeschooling!  Boy, did they not want to.   But I’ll be darned if I didn’t  hear my seven-year-old (also known as “Rat Boy.”  What can I say?  They act ratty) muttering, “What the hammer?  What the chain?  In what furnace was thy brain?”  Yes, folks, my boys are reading poetry, and they are enjoying it.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s good to be a decent writer no matter what your profession or vocation; and the best writing comes from people who read a lot, and who have certain ponderous, glorious, melodious phrases steeping in their brains.  It’s good to own these phrases whether we’re consciously thinking of them or not — whether we understand what they mean or not.  So I’m on a poetry rampage these days . . . but a stealthy one.  No nagging, no prodding, no pedantics or pleading.

I just sat down and skimmed through lists of famous poems, picking out my favorites, and printed them out in a large, plain font (it takes forever to write poems out by hand, for some reason).  Then I cut each page down to the size and shape of the poem, rather than leaving them on 8.5×11 paper — I think they look more appealing, less easy to ignore as educational-type stuff, if they’re nonstandard shapes.  Then I matted them on whatever color paper seemed appropriate (again, to make them more decorative and appealing, and less scholarly in appearance), and went around the house tacking them to walls.

I tried to make the placement relevant (“Love (III)” goes under Rublev’s icon of the Trinity; “Dust of Snow” goes next to the window on the side of the house where there are, in fact, crows and trees), but went first for places where I’ve noticed that people tend to hang around staring at the walls already.  Then I didn’t say a word about them, and just waited for the kids to notice.  I think the key was not making a big deal about it — just doing it because I felt like doing it.  No pressure, so they had no motivation to rebel or be difficult.

Here are the poems I hung up, chosen mostly because they’re fairly short and have wonderful sounds and/or images:

The Tyger” William Blake
Still, Citizen Sparrow” Richard Wilbur
Dust of Snow”  Robert Frost
Spring and Fall” G.M. Hopkins
Love (III)” George Herbert

and here are the ones awaiting colorful matting as soon as I remember where I left the construction paper:

“Thirteen Ways of Looking At a  Blackbird” Wallace Stevens
“When I Was One-and-Twenty” (from A Shropshire Lad) A. E. Housman
“Epistemology” Richard Wilbur
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” William Butler Yeats
“The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower” Dylan Thomas
“maggie and milly and molly and may” e. e. cummings
“The Walrus and the Carpenter” Lewis Carroll
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” Robert Frost
“Mock On,  Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau” William Blake
“At the Sea-Side” Robert Lewis Stevenson
“Marginalia” Richard Wilbur
I Knew a Woman” Theodore Roethke

I wanted to put “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” but we have a Lucy, whom we do not want to creep out.  Otherwise, I gave my self full permission to just pick stuff that I happen to like for whatever reason, and didn’t feel obligated to choose Important Works Students Ought To Learn.

Oh, it’s so easy!  I’m very happy about this idea, and I don’t see how it could possibly do any harm.  When we stopped homeschooling, I was very glad to have someone else take over all the work, but felt persistently of blue that the curriculum was a little flat.  Now I feel like I’ve snuck vitamins into all their favorite snacks, and their days are bound to be richer.

Lots of people hang up quotes from saints or favorite authors, and I think this is a great idea, too.  But for now, I’m just pushing sounds and images.  Do you do this at your house?  What’s on your walls?

***

This post originally ran at the Register in 2012.

Uncategorized

My Dear Graduates

Akademische_Feier_accadis_Bad_Homburg

For some reason, nobody ever asks me to give the commencement address at their local high school or college. This despite the fact that I promised to wear pantyhose and everything, and to leave the bottle at home. Bunch of anti-Semites.

Anyway, I’m not one to be bitter. I’m not going to let this snubbing gnaw away at me. I’m just going to go ahead and write that speech anyway, and print out several copies of it, and keep them in the diaper bag in the car, next to the Luger PO8 and the farewell note. Because you never, never know!

Here’s what I have to say. Graduates, as I look out over your bright, eager faces, my heart wells with emotion and a single phrase springs into my mind: Better you than me.

Gee, I would give anything to not be you right now. What a horrible time this is for you. I mean, think about it: You’re on the verge of starting a new life. The possibilities are endless—what the future holds is bounded only by the limits of your imagination. You can be anything you want to be, if you only believe in yourself. You can shoot for the stars!

I’m so, so sorry.

Because that’s what people have been telling you, right? Isn’t that what your guidance counselor said—that there are no limits to what you can achieve?

You know that’s crazy talk, right?

I mean that literally: Only people with a mental illness would truly believe that you can achieve anything. People who actually get things done are the people who look at themselves and say, “Okey-doke. There are some things I’m good at, and many thousands more things that I am and always will be utterly unqualified to do. Starting tomorrow, my job is do the least amount of thrashing around and wasting of my parent’s tuition money as possible, while I figure out the difference between my very few strengths and my billions of weaknesses.

“Then, I need to figure out if there’s any possible way I can do what it turns out I’m good at, and also be a decent human being. If possible, it would be wonderful if the things I’m good at, and which allow me to be decent, are also things which will earn me a salary.”

And after you have that conversation with yourself, and preferably after you come up with a better plan than scrawling “FIX LIFE” on your memo pad, then you can go out drinking with your buddies.

Because here’s the deal, you poor deluded masses of inchoate ambition: Freedom is for something. Freedom is so that you can get something done. Yes, it’s valuable and precious in itself—but it’s not a resting place. Having potential is like being hungry: You want to resolve that in some definite way. All the best things in life come when you tie yourself down in one way or another, when you accept some limitations.

Think about all the things that make life worth living—all the things that people you admire are proud of. A huge project achieved? They neglected other things—fun things!—to get it done.  A happy marriage? They forsook all others to remain faithful. A vocation of any kind? Saying Yes to one thing always means saying No to a dozen more. It doesn’t mean that all the rejected opportunities are bad. It just means that you’re only one person, and are here to do one person’s work.

This doesn’t mean you have to rush into it. There’s nothing especially admirable about going whole hog for the wrong thing (just ask the guy with the Betty Boop tattoo on his forehead). So take your time, look around, and don’t be rash. But for the love of mike, remember that this stage of your life is supposed to come to an end some day. Even if you never end up with a career at all, you will eventually have some huge choices to make.

Or you know what? You might not even get to make a choice: You might find yourself faced with some horrible situation, and guess who’s the only one who can fix it? That’s right, the guy in the mirror, the one who fell asleep in a trash can and his friend drew cat whiskers on his face with permanent markers. The lives of others may someday depend on you, Mr. Fluffy. Try to make at least some of your current behavior reflect that fact.

So congratulations, graduates! You did it. Some of you worked moderately hard to be here today, and I applaud you. Now go forth, act decent, call your mother from time to time. And remember, nobody’s life ever got better after drinking a rum and Coke.

***

(This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.)

Uncategorized

Columbia Students Lay Siege to Themselves

falling

So here’s what I say to the Columbia students clutching their carefully cultivated pearls as they face down the hot breath of those terrible, wild gods: you’re damn right it’s not safe. You’re not in control here, not on this playground. You may find yourself climbing too high and too fast, and you may reach out for that rung on the monkey bars only to find that you’re grabbing thin air, and down you will plummet, onto the hot asphalt, or maybe further, down into the underworld, where dark Hades glowers over the fluttering dead.

So what?

Read the rest at the Register. 

***

Uncategorized

What can Catholic parents learn from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

Dzhokar_Tsarnaev-VOA

Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes.

 Read the rest at the Register. 

Uncategorized

What are you doing for catechism this year?

All right, YOU catechise this, if you’re so smart.

For the older kids, in 7th, 8th, 10th, and 11th grades, I give up. Wait, no, that’s not what I meant to say out loud. What I meant to say is that we haven’t found either EDGE or LifeTeen to be a good match for our family, and every time I try to read something aloud to the kids, or do a pre-packaged curriculum with them, something happens to capsize the whole endeavor.  It’s some combination of the kids being in three different schools, and me and my husband working four different jobs, and the kids having this dumb idea about having social lives, and me falling into a prenatal coma around 6:00 every night, that just makes it difficult to keep up with the diligent inquiry into beginner’s theology that I always imagined enjoying in the soft quiet of evening with my older kids. And no, we can’t do anything in the car. I don’t want to explain why. We just can’t.

Read the rest at the Register.

Uncategorized

At the Register: Babies as Teachers

Skeptics may groan at yet another extraneous, feel-good program, where tax dollars are squandered on things that parents ought to be teaching at home. Teachers should spend their precious class time teaching math, reading, and science, right?

But others believe that an increase in empathy is not only desirable for life in general, but it also makes for a better learning experience. Kids who have participated in Roots of Emphathy bully each other less; kids are calmer and more respectful of the teacher and of others; kids feel more free to ask questions and to work on problems that they don’t immediately understand. They are learning, in short, how to live with other people, and how to live with themselves.

Read the rest at the Register.